What world legacy was left for the new year that we just entered? “A chaotic world consumed by intractable conflicts” was the recent sobering assessment by world leaders at the United Nations (Alexandra Olson, AP, Sept. 22, 2016). Hard to disagree.
Ingredients for the strong medicine that our sick world needs may be embedded in some seeds planted in our national soil by three men whose names are not widely known. John Chapman, William McGuffey, Jay Forrester.
John Chapman, 1774-1845, literally planted apple trees across a broad swath of the Midwest. Popularly known as Johnny Appleseed, Chapman was a charismatic conservationist and Christian missionary who had a deep sensitivity to the needs of both ecosystems and souls. He was the perfect planter for his era of westward expansion.
William Holmes McGuffey, 1800-1873, was a teacher-preacher who planted seeds of personal morality and basic educational skills in our national soil of the next generation. McGuffey Readers became our national textbooks for the first phase of mass public education, extending and instilling values, virtues, reading, and spelling to the children of the average American.
Henry Ford said that McGuffey’s legacy was one of the biggest influences on his life, transitioning us from an agrarian to an industrial economy. We zipped through that era into one of being a global superpower that’s blundering our way into a new information age of too much data and too little understanding and reflection.
Jay W. Forrester, 1918-2016 and one of my professors at MIT, was the raw-boned but brilliant son of a Nebraska cattle rancher who helped craft the modern computer (patents in core memory) and extended feedback control theory from the tech world to social systems. In fact, Forrester even made a computer model of the world—arguing that we all use some fuzzy mental model of our world to make decisions. He just wanted us to be more precise and reflective on our decision-making.
Forrester used information flows as the coupling tissue of system components. Information interacts with delays in system flows to create that cursed phenomenon of trying to get your shower water at the right temperature. Chilled by cold water,
you madly twist the faucet to get warmer water—and seconds later may be scalded. You did not properly account for the delays in your control inputs affecting output. Forrester put all that into understandable formats.
We’re being fire-hosed with so much data from so many sources that separating fact from fiction is difficult and knowing what knobs to twist—and when, how far—is ever more challenging in our everyday world. The wisdom of Chapman, McGuffey, and Forrester would suggest we need to plant more seeds of patience, reflection, and values assessment.
It’s not “stop the world, I want to get off”—rather it’s slow your world down, put it on pause now and then, and do some deeper reflection on where we are and where we’re going—you included. When Congress passes 400-page bills few people have read, far fewer fully understand, and whose main consequences down the road are guesstimates intermixed with unforeseen side effects, it’s time to hit “pause, reflect, think.”
When overseas conflicts involve dozens of different armed groups and everyone’s being hacked if not whacked, it may be time to hit “pause, reflect, think, and pray.” Johnny Appleseed, William Holmes McGuffey, and Jay W. Forrester would likely agree.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.